Tiny Alice
Directed by John Vreeke

  Tiny Alice        Edward Albee's controversial and perplexing rumination on faith and religion begins with a snarling encounter between a sinister Lawyer and an arrogant Cardinal. The lawyer has been instructed by his client, Miss Alice, to offer an enormous grant to the church--$100 million a year for 20 years--with a single string attached: the go-between must be the Cardinal's simple, pious secretary, Brother Julian. When Julian arrives at Miss Alice's palatial estate, he encounters a cynical butler who shows him a model of the estate, inside which there's a model of the model, and so forth (layers upon layers of symbolism?). It soon becomes clear to us, if not to Brother Julian, that the lawyer, the butler, and Miss Alice have essentially bought him. What isn't immediately evident is exactly what they've bought--his body, his soul, his faith...or perhaps all three. The Washington Shakespeare Company's designers have mounted the hell out of this odd script, providing a majestic, ethereally lit, marble-columned setting that suggests a cathedral but is actually the vast sitting room of Alice's estate, and adding sound-design that powers the evening's big speeches until they seem like climaxes even when, on occasion, they don't add up to much. In John Vreeke's agile, clear-as-the-circumstances-will-allow staging, the performers also do their bit. Approached as a theatrical puzzle, the play is certainly intriguing, even if the author keeps its solution too far out of reach for it to be entirely satisfying. (BM) Washington Shakespeare Company 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Saturday & Sunday at 2 p.m. $20-$25 to Feb. 10 (703) 418-4808

Copyright © 2001 Washington Free Weekly Inc.

Albee's Enigmatic, Elusive 'Alice'
By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2002; Page C01 

The meaning of the words "God" and "Alice" become interchangeable in "Tiny Alice," a 1964 drama that perplexed its original star, John Gielgud. Even its author, Edward Albee, termed this work "a mighty peculiar play."

With its hints of an alternate universe and an unexplained crew of schemers, "Tiny Alice" is a little too pretentious and ultimately ambiguous to do more than tantalize audiences. But it does tantalize; it's powerful and strange, and you can see why the Washington Shakespeare Company would want to have a go at it. (The WSC's production opened Monday.) Director John Vreeke's staging slowly builds a sinister tone until what the audience has on its hands is a metaphysical horror show.

At its simplest level, "Tiny Alice" is about a Catholic lay brother named Julian (the part Gielgud played). An eccentric millionaire known only as Miss Alice wants to grant the Catholic Church a tremendous sum of money; Julian is assigned to see to the details.

What he finds inside Miss Alice's mansion is a tremendous model of . . . Miss Alice's mansion. There may be life inside the model; there may be God. According to Miss Alice and her lawyer and butler, there is, at minimum, Alice.

The tiny Alice who may or may not be in the model is not to be confused with the rich Alice who's giving money to the church -- and who is also meticulously seducing Julian. She falls in love with him a little, to the annoyance of her smug, brutal lover (also her lawyer). But she's also a cog in some vaguely motivated grand plan to sacrifice Julian at the altar of Alice -- a plot that's as overripe as it is intriguing.

Julian is a magnificent character, a good soul whose purity seems to have made him a mark for the cult of Alice. Though he is a part of the Catholic Church, Julian is unsatisfied by the traditional trappings of faith, especially the way man molds God in his own image. Julian -- and, it would seem, Albee -- prefers to let God remain as an abstraction. (This is a heck of a thing to write a play about.) Still, Julian has dark tendencies. The line between sexual ecstasy and spiritual martyrdom is particularly blurry for Julian, an Achilles' heel that Miss Alice exploits.

Albee's play has two real people -- Julian and Miss Alice -- and three broad types: Lawyer, Cardinal and Butler. Unsurprisingly, the types are less interesting than the people. As the cardinal and the lawyer, Steve Wilhite and Jonathan Watkins sneer distastefully at one another as the initial deal is struck, performing with a low-grade oiliness. Richard Mancini manages to be amusing and puckish as the butler, but he seems to have no choice but to go frosty as the character becomes as heartless and corrupt as the others.

Julian and Miss Alice, though, are given rich, warm-blooded portrayals by Christopher Henley and Jenifer Deal. The two characters have long, nuanced discussions -- Albee's language is precise and alluring -- and Henley and Deal handle these weighty discussions with a light touch. Deal, a tall redhead, perfectly judges when to be physically and intellectually imposing as Miss Alice, and when to work the softer angles. Henley's acting is gentle but knowing; his Julian is sharp but relentlessly subservient even in his hallucinatory rhapsodies, raising both psychological and spiritual issues without imposing any answers on Albee's ambiguous script. It's a fascinating, well-measured performance.

Vreeke's uncluttered production crescendos toward Albee's weird climax, which is capped by a famously difficult monologue that even Henley can't quite tame. (By then, the evening has stretched to nearly three hours.) The organ music of Mark Anduss's sound design grows increasingly dissonant and gothic, echoing among the faux-marble columns of Kevin Adams's set, which ably suggest both a mansion and a cathedral. It's grand, turgid music -- a direct echo of Albee's curious passion play.

"Tiny Alice," by Edward Albee. Directed by John Vreeke. Lighting, Ayun Fedorcha; costumes, Michele Reisch. Approximately three hours. Through Feb. 9 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington.

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